“The porter in my building and the man I buy my cigarettes from all know me as ‘La Polaca’,” Eleonora Cristina Adynowska tells me when I ask if Argentines struggle to pronounce her Polish name. She continues: “It’s not uncommon for people of Polish descent in Argentina to be referred to as ‘Polacos’.”
Although Cristina was born in Argentina to an Argentine mother, she returned to Poland with her family when she was just two and a half years old, only returning to her land of birth when she was 26. Speaking not a word of Spanish, Cristina stayed at home and studied the Spanish language until she was confident she could make herself understood. She explains: “I didn’t want to hang out with Polish people in Buenos Aires. I wanted to integrate and be amongst Spanish speakers. I didn’t want to stand out, but to blend in and make Argentine friends.”
It is perhaps because of this desire to assimilate that the Polish community is less pronounced than other immigrant groups in Argentina. It is not widely known that after the Spanish and Italians, the third largest immigrant group in Argentina is the Poles. Yet unlike the Spanish and Italians whose influence can be seen in language, food and day-to-day life in Argentina, there are no obvious signs of a Polish presence. But dig a little deeper and there is a thriving community who cling proudly to their heritage and, at the same time, have integrated with great gusto with the Argentine way of life.
It is hard to say exactly how many people of Polish descent now live in Argentina, but the number is estimated to be between 500,000 and one million. It is difficult to know exact numbers because many Poles stopped in other countries before settling in Argentina and acquired passports from another nation. For example, Argentine citizens who claim Polish descent may actually have been registered as German, Russian, Austrian or British citizens when they arrived on Argentine soil.
The first significant arrival of Polish immigrants was in the late 19th century. Fleeing from participation in various uprisings against occupiers of Poland, men arrived in Argentina and were recruited to fight in the war against Paraguay. This small group of Polish families arrived in the port of Buenos Aires and from there made their way to Misiones, where today there is still the highest concentration of people claiming Polish descent in Argentina.
One of the earliest mentions of Polish immigrants in Argentina was in 1901 by Misiones governor Juan Jose Lanusse. According to the Buenos Aires Herald, he wrote: “I’ve seen 500 of these immigrants arrive in Posadas in a steamer barely able to take half of them…Eminently Catholic, the first thing they do upon arrival in Posadas is go to church…In agriculture they only have rudimentary skills…there are Poles who have re-sown three or four times in a season fields destroyed by ants with a patience and persistence inconceivable in Italian, Spanish or any other farmers…Their crime rate is very low; they are very moral and marry very young and their women are most fecund.”
Buenos Aires has the next largest population, but there are also significant groups in Córdoba, Rosario and Santa Fe. Between 1921 and 1976, 169,335 Poles permanently settled in Argentina. There were two main waves of immigration; the first and largest group in the 1920s was mainly comprised of Poles leaving Europe to find non-professional, labour intensive work; the second wave was made up of professionals; engineers and construction workers, who were drawn to the new opportunities that were on offer. Although many Poles arrived in Argentina before and during the Second World War, a significant number who had already settled in Argentina, returned to Poland to fight. Today a memorial to those who died can be found in the Unión de los Polacos in Palermo.
So what are the trends today? Cristina tells me: “New Polish immigration isn’t great now. It’s not because they don’t want to live here, but it’s difficult with the language and finding a job and a place to live.” Henryk Kozlowski, administrator of the Unión de los Polacos confirms this view: “There aren’t lots of new Polish people arriving in Argentina, nor are lots returning to Poland. It’s just too expensive to travel.”
One Negative Effect of Immigration
In the early 20th century groups of Poles arrived in Argentina with a much more sinister purpose. In the 1880s there had been a massive migration of Europeans to the Americas and many had settled in Buenos Aires. These first arrivals were usually men who, once settled, would send for their families. This produced a society where men greatly outnumbered women, perhaps ten men to one woman, and as a result the demand for prostitution flourished. The women who became prostitutes were predominately from France and Poland: they came with the promise of marriage to a rich Argentine, but were in fact forced into the bars and brothels of Buenos Aires.
One of the largest organisations responsible for the prostitution in Argentina during the early 20th century was Zwi Mignal: founded by men originally from Poland with a Jewish background. The headquarters of Zwi Migdal was in Buenos Aires, but it was active in Brazil, New York, Warsaw and many other places around the world. This powerful organisation was resisted by many in the Argentine Jewish community and The Jewish Association for the Protection of Women and Children urged people not to rent rooms or support Zwi Migdal in anyway. In 1929 Ruchla (Raquel) Laja Liberman, a Polish immigrant forced into prostitution, famously denounced Zwi Migdal to the police, resulting in a raid of their headquarters and the beginning of the end of their powerful hold on prostitution in Buenos Aires.
The French writer and investigative journalist Albert Londres wrote many reports on the trafficking of French and Polish women to Buenos Aires, bound for prostitution. In 1923 he wrote ‘The Road to Buenos Aires’, a vivid account of the trafficking, part factual reporting, part creative writing. He reports that the French women were the most highly sought after prostitutes and that next were the ‘Polacas’.
The tragic and desperate lives of Polish women forced into prostitution were fictionalised in many works of Argentine literature and have been recorded for posterity in the lyrics of tango. The tango song ‘Milonguita’ (1920), written by Samuel Linningis one such example. Milonguita is also a lunfardo term (Argentine slang) that is thought to be both a diminutive for the word ‘milonga’ and also a name used to refer to the women brought from Eastern Europe to Argentina who ended up as prostitutes.
The lyrics go:
Today they call you Milonguita,
Flower of luxury and pleasure,
flower of night and cabaret.
Men have hurt you
And in between the wine and the last tango
a rich guy takes you to his pad…
Oh, how lonely, little Ester, you feel!
If you cry, they say it’s because of the champagne!
There may be a Polish influence not just in the lyrics of tango, but in the origins of the dance and music itself. The beginnings of tango are constantly debated, and the truth appears to have been lost to myth, but many believe that the origins can be traced to the massive immigration to Argentina that occurred in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The mix of people from African and European nations, including Poland, with native-born Argentines resulted in a melting pot of cultures. It is thought that the tango emerged from combining dances and music from many cultures: traditional polkas from Eastern Europe with the habanera from Cuba and the candombe beats of Africa.
Today the mixing of musical flavours continues and it’s not uncommon to hear a traditional Eastern European beat, perhaps Polish, alongside some traditional Argentine folk music, combined with west coast hip-hop. Today, the music artist, ‘El Polaco’ may be a big name in the Argentine Cumbia scene, but his pale white skin and white blond hair, as well as his name, are a certain give away of his Polish roots. This young up-and-coming star was born Ezequiel Ivan Lopez, but took his mothers maiden name of Cwirkaluk when he started to become famous and now simply goes by the title, ‘El Polaco’.
At the very moment the Germans were invading Poland during the Second World War, a Polish writer, now considered one of the foremost figures in Polish literature, was on a transatlantic liner bound for Argentina. Witold Gombrowicz arrived in Buenos Aires in 1939 where he stayed until 1963. He never returned to his country of birth, dying in Paris in 1969. One of Gombrowicz’s most famous novels is ‘Transatlantyk’, a story that mocks the pretensions of the Polish community in Argentina.
He writes in an absurd and satirical style, reminiscent of Lewis Carroll and tells a story of the protagonist’s encounters with a crazy collection of Poles in Buenos Aires. Gombrowicz is said to have commented that it was perhaps not the best idea to write a novel criticising and ridiculing a community into which he had just arrived, exiled and alone, without a penny to his name.
The first Polish immigrants were predominately Orthodox Ruthenian – an Eastern European strand of Catholicism, but others were Roman Catholic or Jewish. Today the most obvious signs of Polish influence can be seen in the Catholic religion. The most important Polish person to have affected the lives of Argentines in the twentieth century is of course Pope John Paul II. In December 1978 Argentina and Chile were on the verge of war over land they both claimed in Patagonia. Pope John Paul II offered to mediate between the two, predominately Catholic countries and on 9 January 1979 they signed the Act of Montevideo which formally requested arbitration from the Vatican and renounced the use of force to solve the dispute. This act by the Pope, which prevented a military crisis, is a matter of pride to Argentine Poles.
The Argentine-Polish Community Today
A number of Polish institutions are active in Argentina today including the Unión de los Polacos. The Unión is based in a beautiful, white building on Jorge Luis Borges 2076 in Palermo. Apart from the Polish Embassy, it is the most important organisation for the Polish community in Buenos Aires and runs a busy schedule of cultural activities, Polish language classes and hosts events for visiting Polish dignitaries.
The Union, with support from the embassy, publishes ‘Glos Polski – la voz de Polonia’, a fortnightly newspaper in Polish and some Spanish. The paper was founded in 1922 and covers news about the Polish community in Argentina, but also news from Poland. Another prominent organisation is the Argentine Polish Cultural Association, founded in 2003 to promote, assist and implement initiatives and projects to spread the Polish language and culture in Argentina and beyond. It publishes a Spanish language paper for the Polish community called ‘Nasza Gazeta’.
No discussion of a community in Argentina would be complete without mentioning its participation in the national sport: football. And of course, Polish-Argentines have not failed to embrace this Argentine obsession. Polonia F. C may only play in the amateur leagues, but is a source of pride in Argentine-Polish society. The team is closely connected to other Polish associations and societies and is perceived as an important part of preserving Polish culture in Argentina.
Considering the large number of Argentine Poles, you might expect a bigger Polish restaurant and bar scene in Argentina. Whereas British supermarkets and bars are now religiously stocking Polish beer and it’s not unusual to stumble across a Polish bakery in London, in Argentina the Poles appear to have adapted to the local cuisine, perhaps because the Spanish and Italian immigrants have cornered the market. However, nestled behind the Unión de los Polacos there is Casa Polaca, a Polish restaurant serving traditional food and in San Telmo you can find Krakow bar serving a few Polish themed dishes.
Perhaps the most significant indication of the true influence of Polish immigrants in Argentina, is that in 1995 the Argentine government named 8th June Polish Settlers Day. So this June, why not pop into Krakow and raise a glass of Polish vodka to ‘los Polacos’?